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Oversight of Bush wiretaps long overdue

With a new Democratic majority in Congress and the Justice Department's inspector general finally getting on the case, it appears that the warrantless domestic wiretapping program authorized and defended by President Bush will soon be getting the scrutiny it deserves.

Last December, following newspaper accounts, Bush acknowledged that he approved a program to let the National Security Agency monitor telephone conversations and e-mail between people here and overseas if one of the targets was a terror suspect. In defiance of our constitutional traditions and federal law, no court was providing oversight and no warrants were being obtained.

The revelation was a bombshell at the time, with declarations even from some Republicans in Congress that the president had gone too far. But many of those who raised legitimate concerns were quickly intimidated into silence. Bush and other Republican leaders accused anyone who challenged the program of siding with terrorists.

Now, fresh from victory in the November elections, Democrats will no longer be bullied. Bush's demand that the lame-duck Congress approve a bill to grant him the legal authority to do what he has already done is going nowhere. And the new Democratic-controlled Congress is expected to open investigations into the way the NSA program operates.

Glenn Fine, the inspector general of the Justice Department, also will finally get involved. Fine has been a responsible auditor, issuing scathing reports on the department's treatment of hundreds of detainees following 9/11. In this case, though, he has been slow to respond, and the investigation he announced, while welcome, doesn't go far enough.

Fine is refusing to examine the overall legality of the NSA program. Instead, he will look at the department's role. Certainly, knowing such things as whether improperly obtained evidence was used by the department as the basis of an indictment is valuable. But it doesn't get to the heart of whether the president has ordered illegal spying on American soil.

Of course, when the department's Office of Professional Responsibility did try to look into that question, Bush refused to authorize the security clearances necessary and the inquiry had to be abandoned. Fine apparently has the White House's assurances that his more limited review will be allowed to proceed.

Thanks to the midterm election results, Bush's attempt to ram through new, broad presidential powers to eavesdrop will not succeed. Democratic leaders are determined to know how the NSA program works, whom it has impacted, whether it is truly necessary and whether civil liberties are protected. Finally, there is the prospect of some real oversight of a president who isn't accustomed to any.

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